WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted yesterday to make it a separate crime to harm a fetus during commission of a violent federal crime, a victory for those seeking to expand the legal rights of the unborn.
The 61-38 vote on the Unborn Victims of Violence Act sends the legislation, after a five-year battle in Congress, to President Bush for his signature. The White House said in a statement that it "strongly supports protection for unborn children." The House passed the bill last month.
Senate majority leader Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee, said the bill was "powerful because this act is about simple humanity, about simple reality."
But lawmakers who support abortion rights contended that giving a fetus, from the point of conception, the same legal rights as its mother sets a precedent that could be used in future legal challenges to abortion rights.
It was the second big win for social conservatives, who last year pushed through protections for the unborn with enactment of the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act. That law, which would prohibit a certain late-term abortion procedure, is now tied up in the courts.
The Senate cleared the way for passage with a 50-49 vote to defeat an amendment, backed by opponents of the bill, that would have increased penalties for harm to a pregnant woman but did not attempt to define when human life begins.
Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democrats' presumptive presidential nominee, interrupted his campaign schedule to vote yes on the amendment. He voted no on final passage.
The bill states that an assailant who attacks a pregnant woman while committing a violent federal crime can be prosecuted for separate offenses against both the woman and her unborn child. The legislation defines an "unborn child" as a child in utero, which it says "means a member of the species homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb."
"This bill recognizes that there are two victims," said Senator Mike DeWine, Republican of Ohio, a chief sponsor. Americans, he said, "intuitively know that there is a victim besides the mother."
The key obstacle was an amendment by Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, that would have imposed the same tougher penalties for attacks on pregnant women as outlined in the DeWine bill but made no attempt to define the beginning of life.
Feinstein said that by defining when life begins, the bill was "the first step in removing a woman's right to choice, particularly in the early months of a pregnancy before viability." She said it could also put limits on embryonic stem cell research.
The Senate also defeated an amendment by Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, that would require employers to give unpaid leave, and states to pay unemployment benefits, to women when they or family members are victims of domestic or sexual violence.
Supporters of the bill have named it after Laci Peterson and her unborn child, Conner, victims in a highly publicized murder case in California. California, one of 29 states with an unborn victims law, is trying Peterson's husband, Scott, on double murder charges.
The Senate bill would specifically exclude prosecution of legally performed abortions -- a fact supporters cite in arguing that the bill would not undermine the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision affirming a woman's right to end a pregnancy. "The criminals who commit these crimes are not committing abortions," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee. "They are depriving these unborn children of the right to life. It's a separate issue related to the right to life."
Groups on both sides of the abortion issue lobbied hard on the legislation.
The Christian Coalition of America said votes for either the Murray or Feinstein amendments would be regarded as negative votes on its annual congressional scorecard of lawmakers.
On the other side, NARAL Pro-Choice America delivered more than 130,000 petitions to senators urging defeat of the bill.
"This would be the first time in federal law that an embryo or fetus is recognized as a separate and distinct person under the law, separate from the woman," said NARAL president Kate Michelman. "Much of this is preparing for the day the Supreme Court has a majority that will overrule Roe v. Wade."